The other day, I read through old reviews of Michael John Lachiusa’s Bernardo Alba musical, which played at Lincoln Center a few years ago. The reviewers were frustrated that it had been called a musical while it was actually an opera. Lachiusa has frequently been accused of blurring the line between opera and the American musical.
This accusation comes from a misperception. I’m familiar with this misperception because I’ve frequently come across it in my own work as a playwright and composer. Recently my children’s musical The Ugly Duckling was performed. It was obviously a musical, but a number of people insisted on calling it an opera.
I love the classical opera. I am fascinated by the works of Monteverdi, Mozart and Wagner. But for me, as for other creators of musical theatre, a musical is a decided turn in the road away from opera.
The giants of the American musical have repeatedly taken this turn. George Gershwin composed his opera Porgy and Bess after years of study of musical composition. He studied counterpoint and orchestration. He had composed several prominent orchestral works. He had become familiar with serious composers ranging from Bach to Schoenberg.
But Porgy and Bess was not simply an opera. Gershwin chose to premiere this work on Broadway with a smaller orchestra than operas are usually given. And while many of the lyrics were by DuBose Heyward, a poet, Gershwin chose his brother Ira, a Broadway veteran, to write the lyrics for the drug dealer Sporting Life. Thus even upon musically reaching the level of opera, Gershwin chose to mix opera with many features of the American musical.
This mixture continued. Richard Rodgers, in composing the score for Carousel, brought many features of opera to the hit Broadway musical. Frank Loesser filled most of The Most Happy Fella with music, but he called it “a play with a lot of music” rather than an opera. And he chose to cast a country singing star in it alongside operatic leads.
Sweeney Todd, a more recent work, has become part of the opera repertory. It has many of the features of opera, and shows the musical sophistication and serious study of its composer, Stephen Sondheim. But it also has many of the features of musicals, and should be considered as such.
Particularly on a musical level, opera has much to offer. It has given us a number of the greatest composers. It often features supple music through which the composer moves the action forward.
Opera has also been notable since the 1600’s for its use of spectacle. In the past two decades, operatic designers have used the latest technology to create striking scenic effects.
But opera has been notorious throughout the centuries for going astray from its original purpose. For an opera is essentially a play with the added dimension of music. Yet more often than not, opera, as performed, has been more about the glorification of the voice than the play at the music’s center. Opera has had its reformers, including the composers Gluck and Wagner, but their struggle has largely been uphill.
Although the situation has improved somewhat in recent decades, operatic production has suffered a neglect of the art of acting, an art essential to theatre. When Wagner, himself a talented actor, directed his operas at Bayreuth, many of his singers chaffed at his interest in acting. They were singers, they told him; not actors.
Another problem plaguing opera has been a lack of attention to lyrics. Arias have traditionally been sung by singers and performed by the orchestras so that their lyrics can not be distinctly heard. As performed, it has not mattered much to audiences or performers whether the lyrics are mediocre. And often they have been undistinguished. The philosopher Schopenhauer, in an aesthetic essay, commented on the cheap poetry of opera.
A significant theatrical reformer was Sir William Gilbert, who appeared on the London stage scene in the 1860’s. While Wagner was attempting to raise the standards of theatrical production at Bayreuth, Gilbert, also a director, was doing the same in London.
Significantly, Gilbert also raised the standards of lyric writing. For he brought his skill in light verse to the comic operas he wrote with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Their operas are the direct ancestors of the American musical, and Gilbert’s light verse has influenced, directly or indirectly, American lyricists from Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin through Frank Loesser and Stephen Sondheim.
The creator of the American musical was Jerome Kern. Kern had studied musical composition in Heidelberg, Germany. He was an enthusiastic fan of Wagner. Yet he recognized the problems with opera.
In a series of shows written for the Princess Theatre in New York between 1915 and 1918, Kern created the American musical. His Princess shows were noted for their integration of story, song and dance. He insisted that lyrics by heard clearly. The singer’s first job, he said, was to put across the lyrics.
From the Princess forward, Kern also insisted on working with the best lyricists. At the Princess, his lyricist was P.G. Wodehouse, who far excelled the other lyricists of his day. Later Kern’s principal lyricist was Oscar Hammerstein II, who has widely been considered to be the poet of the American musical stage.
The art form created by Jerome Kern has incorporated much of what is best in opera. Many well-trained composers have devoted themselves to the musical, and often they have achieved musical excellence.
But what ultimately matters is not so much opera or the musical but the Drama: the telling of stories through theatre. Through its emphases on story, acting and text, the American musical has frequently come closer than opera to the essential nature of the drama. And it is the combination of these components with the expressiveness of music that makes it a distinct and often powerful art form.